Learning new things – medieval style spinning

Josefin Waltin drafting wool from a distaff

I’m in a process where I’m learning new things. Learning a new skill is a beautiful experience. To be able to meet a new technique from a perspective of a beginner allows me to experiment with new tools before I have had the chance to decide which tools to get comfortable with. It teaches me to be humble before the learning process. For a moment I can step outside of myself and watch me gradually grasp the new technique.

Learning to spin medieval style

The purpose of my romance with the ever so charming process of learning is the art of spinning medieval style with a distaff. In this, there are several new things for me to learn:

  • The technique to spin on a new kind of spindle with a new technique
  • How to dress and draft from a distaff
  • How to spin and draft with the wrong hand

Medieval style spinning technique

The medieval spindle technique can be described as a third kind of technique along with suspended and supported spindle spinning. It is a grasped kind of spinning or in-hand spinning. But one of the beauties of spinning medieval style is that you can combine it with suspended spinning (long and short) and support spinning, all according to the circumstances in which you are spinning.

When spinning in-hand style, the yarn goes over the top of the spindle shaft, much like it does with supported spinning. I just love that light pattering sound of the thread snapping off the spindle tip for every turn of the spindle. Check out Cathelina di Alessandri‘s videos at 15th century spinning for great technique instructions.

The distaff

Working with a distaff is totally new to me. I have a hand-held distaff and a belt distaff. The first task is to dress the distaff. I prefer to hand-card my fleece, and so I do my best to assemble 20–25 grams of hand-carded batts on my distaff. I had lots of inspiration from Luca Costigliolo.

My hand distaff is hand turned by Caroline Hershey at Hershey Fiber arts. My belt distaff is hand-carved by my son when he was eight. He was inspired by the wizarding world and wanted to make a “magic cane”. He carved and decorated with mysterious signs and a magic gemstone on top. And when I found it a couple of weeks ago (he is 15 now and doesn’t like to throw away stuff) I saw the perfect belt distaff! A tad too short, but I can live with that. I am planning to carv myself some new ones though, in various lengths for hand-held, belt and floor distaff spinning.

Changing hands

In almost all of my spinning my left hand is my spinning hand and my right hand is my fiber hand. I tried this with in-hand spinning, but I got a cramp in my left hand all the time. The motion is the same whether you spin with your right or left hand, but if you want a specific spinning direction the motion will be different. Unless I spin for something special, I always spin clockwise. Spinning clockwise with your right hand means moving your first and second fingers outwards, away from your body. Spinning clockwise with tour left hand means moving your fingers inward towards your center. And apparently this didn’t work for me. So I switched. I know it is possible, since I have done it with Navajo spindle spinning for similar reasons.

A person holding a spindle
Learning to spin with the wrong hand

Changing an incorporated muscular pattern does take its time, though. But today I really felt progress and thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of having some sort of control over my right hand muscles.

Video plans

I have plans to make a video with medieval style spinning. It’s still a little cold outside, though. The lanolin isn’t on its best behaviour in -7°C. Believe me, I have tried. Today in fact. So I will give you a short sneak peak of my learning process from a cold and snowy Stockholm. Enjoy!

The spindle is one of the spiral notched spindle shafts from NiddyNoddyUK that I unboxed the other day and the whorl is from John Rizzi. Hat pattern is Ella Gordon‘s Crofthoose hat in my handspun yarn and the shawl is my handspun and handwoven from my video Slow Fashion 2 – from sheep to shawl. The fiber I am spinning is a prize winning Värmland fleece. Wonderful to work with and it drafts like a dream. Just not in winter temperatures.

There will be more! In the meantime I will continue to practice and learn.

Plying in Mongolia

Next in our journey around the spinning world is Mongolia. I found this wonderful clip of a woman singing and plying in a Mongolian yurt.

The spindle and the technique looks similar to the ones in Nepal I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The spindle is quite long with a top whorl and she starts the spinning by rolling it against her thigh. She looks quite happy and, frankly, so would I, spinning in the coziness of a yurt.

Ancient spinning technique in Ecuador

First of all: Happy St Distaff’s day! I’m celebrating with some distaff spinning of my own and watching spinning videos.

I found a couple of inspiring clips of some beautiful and very old distaff spinning technique in Ecuador. The spindle is held almost horizontally in the outer end and the thread goes over the spindle tip closest to the distaff. In the first video the spinner is using wool and has a belt distaff.

In the second video the spinner is using cotton and a separate floor distaff. She is also rolling the yarn onto a temporary cop, just like I do when I spin supported. Now and then she dips her spinning hand in what looks like water, perhaps to get a better grip on the spindle.

Spinning playlists on YouTube

I have tried to organize my YouTube channel by making playlists. This way, it will hopefully be easier for you to find what you are looking for. For example, I have made playlists of how-to videos on support spindle spinning, Navajo spindle spinning and plying. I also made a separate playlist of documentary style spinning, including my Slow fashion 1 and 2, Spinning through the seasons and my latest video For the love of spinning. Finally, I made two playlists of videos that are not my own: One on spinning with distaff and/or in-hand spinning (I will write more about this technique in upcoming posts) and one of spinning around the world (with some of the videos I have written about lately).

Spinning in Nepal

I found a few videos of people spinning in Nepal. First off is a woman spinning suspended on a bottom whorl spindle. I think there is a notch at the top of the shaft. She spins wool from a ball of what I think is pre-drafted roving. She pulls out a length first and butterflies it on her spinning hand and starts the spindle between the palm of her hands.

In the second video two women are spinning on similar spindles with the same technique and the balls of roving attached to their belts. They also lead the thread over the top of their heads. As a bonus, the third woman is carrying her child in a sling on her back, something that brings back sweet memories from when we carried our youngest in all sorts of slings.

In the third video, a man is spinning on a spindle that looks the same as in the first two videos. He has arranged his roving (yak?) around his wrist and spins in-hand style.

Eventhough all the spinners are standing, the videos show spinning arranged for mobility. The tools and techniques are adapted to a moving life. Staying in the same place doesn’t seem to be relevant.

In a fourth video, a man is spinning nettle with an in-hand spinning style. The spindle looks completely different from the three above. The strick of hemp is arranged somehow, either on a distaff or over the spinner’s shoulder, it is hard to tell from the video.

That’s all for today!

Support spinning and walking

This lady in northern India is spinning on a support spindle. However, she doesn’t have the time to just sit and spin, so she has arranged a spoon-like tool to act as a bowl, fastened in her apron. This way she can spin while she is walking. The man interviewing her says she is spinning wool, but it does look more like cotton to me.

I was really inspired when I saw this video and a little over a year ago I tried to do the same. I shot a silly little video with support spinning with a spoon while walking. Enjoy!

New spinning video: For the love of spinning

Josefin Waltin spinning on a support spindle. Mountains in the background

I have finished another spinning video!

This time I haven’t done the filming myself, so the quality is much better. My husband was behind the camera, which means I had a great photographer and a great camera. And my fourteen year old made the sweet yarnimations. Locations are at home in Stockholm, in the Sazkammergut area in Austria and in Tiveden, Sweden, which are all my favourite places.

I had an idea of a spinning video with just beautiful spinning in beautiful scenery, to illustrate sort of a poem, an ode to spinning. So, during the summer we scouted locations wherever we went, and tripod, camera and spindle was set up where the spot was spot on. I saved all the clips for winter, so that I could make a beautiful spinning video at a time when I would miss light and summer the most.

I got the music from the Free music archive.

Spinning tools from Malcolm Fielding, Kromski, Jenkins yarn tools, Roosterick and Neal Brand.


For the love of spinning

When I spin
I feel the wool in my hands
each fiber
through its journey
from sheep to yarn
I hear the quiet hum of the spindle tip
I see the wheel turning
chasing its own shadow
in the sunlight

When I spin
I absorb the rhythm
the treadling of my feet
the flicking of the spindle
the movement of my hands
between spun and unspun
a motion with no beginning
and no end

When I spin
time stops
I receive the gift of weightlessness
and enter another dimension
I allow my thoughts to come and go
without holding back
without forcing
in the gentle flow
of meditation
finding the space between my thoughts
I enter the space of making
where the making makes me

When I spin
the memories
of sound, vision and rhythm
are captured in the yarn
as if they were fibers
Mistakes are spun into the thread
the stories they tell
All the choices I have made along the way
make a map of what I have learned
like an echo

The more I spin, the deeper it goes
From the sensation
through the rhythm
into my mind
fueling my experience
going back into my fingers
round and round
like the spinning itself

When I spin
the air around me smiles
the sunlight dusts my yarn with golden sparkle
and I thank all sheep for the gift of wool
I become a better me
because of the love
of spinning.

Spindle stick and distaff spinning in Romania

A short clip of a Romanian woman spinning with a spindle stick and distaff. She is holding the spindle stick horizontally and spins it into a bulky and low-twist yarn by tossing and turning the spindle in her hand. She has arranged the fiber beautifully on the distaff, there must be over 200 grams of wool on it!

Norman Kennedy also demonstrates this technique in his video From wool to walking: Spinning wool and creating cloth with Norman Kennedy (preview of the video), available on Interweave.

Clara Sherman Navajo spinning

Clara Sherman spinning on a Navajo spindle

Since I’m not making any new videos this time of year, I thought I’d invite you to see other videos that I like, that feature spinners and spinning techniques around the globe.

First up is a video I’m sure many of you have seen already, but it is so beautiful and inspirational when it comes to Navajo spindle spinning. I am talking about Clara Sherman and her wonderful treatment of spindle, wool and spinning. The way she trusts her body to feel when the twist is just right is so liberating. But not only does she trust her body to feel how the wool wants to be spun, she can also verbalize it and explain it to the viewer. That’s skill and knowledge on a deep level. She has a true respect for the wool and animates it when she talks about the wool crying.

The video features all the parts of the process from sheep to the finished rug, and it emphasizes the importance of thoughtful and thorough preparation to make a high quality all the way to the end product.

Clara Sherman died a few years ago, at the age of 96. I’m so happy that someone filmed her and made some of her talent available on YouTube so that  we have the opportunity to learn from her.